Involuntary “No Reading” Blogging Break

Botanical Garden Basel

Botanical Garden Basel

Hi everyone,

I would like to let you know that I will take a possibly longer blogging break.

Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t blog as often as I used to and definitely visited other blogs far less.

I’ve had eye problems for a few months and my ophthalmologist told me I have to stop reading for a while.

As you can imagine, it’s a scary situation and not reading is very hard for me. I’m allowed to watch movies/series/TV but that’s not the same.

Unfortunately, this affects this month’s Literature and War Readalong.

I hope this break will not take too long. I suspect that while I’ll be able to read and blog again, I might have to reduce reading online even more than I already did in the past months.

I hope all is well on your side.

Take care.

Suggestions for podcasts, audiobooks, and movies are welcome.

Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)

Swimming Lessons is English author Claire Fuller’s second novel. After coming across more than one raving review by book bloggers and critics, I decided I had to read it.

Flora and Nan’s mother has disappeared twelve years ago. One day, their father, Gil Coleman, thinks he’s seen her and while trying to get a better look accidentally falls from a seafront. Nan, the older sister, a nurse, calls Flora and begs her to come home and help her look after their dad.

Unlike Gil and Nan, Flora doesn’t believe that her mother has drowned. She thinks that she simply chose to leave and might still return one day.

After the first chapter in which Flora travels to her childhood home, a swimming pavilion, the narrative splits. The parts in the present are told from Flora’s POV, the parts in the past are written in the form of letters Ingrid writes to Gil before she disappears. Ingrid hides the letters in the pages of Gil’s books. Gil Coleman, who is the famous author of a scandalous book, has an interesting hobby. He collects old books. Not because of the books but because of the things he finds in them— the notes and drawings of their readers. In one of these he finds a letter from his missing wife. Ingrid’s letters unfold their complex, difficult, and destructive marriage.

Most readers seem to have liked the marriage story told by Ingrid in the letters. While I found some elements interesting, overall, the parts set in the present, spoke to me much more.  The most interesting element of Ingrid’s story is her feelings for her children. She doesn’t relate to her two daughters. The first one, Nan, was an accident and somehow Ingrid always saw her as an independent being. Flora, the third, is very much Gil’s daughter. I guess that’s why the parts in the present are told from her and not from Nan’s point of view. She adores and idolizes her father. Finding out the truth about her parent’s marriage is more of a surprise and a shock to her than it is to the reader. One of the tragedies of Ingrid’s life is that the child she relates to the most was stillborn. When she’s pregnant with him, she already knows that Gil is unfaithful and she’s very lonely. She projects so much on this child and is sure he will become her companion. When he dies, she feels like she’s lost her only true child and her chance at happiness and companionship. I found this extremely sad and problematic for everyone involved. For Ingrid, because she lost that baby and for her two girls because they mean less to their mother than a child who didn’t even live.

The parts told by Flora were those I could relate to the most. They show how difficult it is to live with a family secret and what a challenge it can be, coming from a dysfunctional family, to have healthy relationships.

One of the main themes of the novel is ambiguous loss. There’s a story one character tells the others, in which a child gets lost and it mirrors Ingrid’s story. The loss is magnified because they never get closure. It’s possible she’s dead but it’s just as possible, she left them. Gil and Nan, both believe she’s dead and have moved on, but Flora, for the longest time, cannot move on as she’s still hoping her mother’s out there somewhere.

Whole books have been written about ambiguous loss. There are other forms of ambiguous loss, not only those, in which the body of the disappeared was never found but also those in which the mind has gone but the body’s still around, like in the case of dementia or Alzheimer patients. I haven’t experienced anything like this but I always thought it must be devastating. It’s an important topic and I loved how subtly it was explored in this novel.

This is one of those books I enjoyed far less while reading it than after finishing it. I’m not always keen on split narratives. I often prefer one narrator/POV and going back and forth between two or more can get on my nerves. But when a book is really good, it can come together as whole, once we finish reading. And that was the case here. The longer I thought about it, the more I liked it. I found the characters, especially quirky Flora, interesting and relatable and I absolutely loved the sense of place. The descriptions of the swimming pavilion and the surrounding landscape of marshes and ponds, is what held the book together. The imagery was so strong that I can still picture the place with great detail. The ending was unexpected and powerful.

If you like stories of dysfunctional families and family secrets, books with a strong sense of place, and fully rounded, complex characters, you might enjoy this subtle, haunting story that lingers in the mind long after the book is finished.

Frédéric Dard: C’est toi le venin (You’re the Poison) (1957)

I have no idea why I haven’t read any Frédéric Dard novels so far. Possibly, because in France his standalone novels are a bit overshadowed by his San-Antonio series, which never tempted me. Or because he was so prolific that I had no clue where to start. He wrote at least 280 novels, twenty plays, and sixteen adaptations for the cinema. There was one novel, however, I always meant to read because it has been made into a movie (Toi, le venin – Night is Not For Sleep aka Blonde in a White Car), of which my dad was very fond. He even had a single of the film music. That’s why I chose this book over all the many others that sounded just as good and also over all those already translated into English.

Ces’t toi le venin, which I would translate as “You’re the poison” tells the story of Victor Menda. Victor Menda, a young man of twenty-eight years, is down on his luck. He has no job, no money, no relatives, no friends and serious dept at the casino. The story’s set on the Côte d’Azur and at the beginning we see Menda walk along the sea, contemplating suicide. He eventually decides against this drastic measure and takes a walk along the water. Suddenly a car stops. A woman’s at the steering wheel and demands that he join her. Menda does as he’s told. He’s intrigued and wants to see the woman’s face but a scarf hides it. She finally stops again and wants to have sex with him. Although he finds this openly demanding behaviour a tad intimidating and even revolting, he still accepts. When she finally boots him out again, there’s nothing else he can do but write down her number plate.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given away too much of the plot, as what I just summarized doesn’t take up more than a few pages. The story as such begins when Menda finds the owner of the car. The car belongs to Hélène, the older of two very beautiful and rich sisters who own a huge villa near Nice. The younger sister, Ève, sits in a wheelchair since the age of thirteen. The young girl develops a massive crush on Menda and so the older one begs him to stay with them. Unfortunately, Menda falls in love with the older one.

It soon becomes obvious that things are not as they should. There’s someone using the car at night but it doesn’t seem to be Hélène. Other strange things happen, which alert Menda.

The atmosphere and the mood in the novel get darker and darker. At first Menda thinks, he’s struck gold, but soon he can’t shake off the feeling of being trapped and used. Someone is playing cat and mouse with the people living at the villa. Is it one of them or someone from outside?

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

I’m a sucker for books set on the Côte d’Azur, but even if Dard had chosen another setting, I would have enjoyed this book a lot.

I hope to watch the movie soon, until then, I’ll listen to the score. It’s captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

While C’est toi le venin hasn’t been translated yet, some of Dard’s other novels have been published by Pushkin Press in their Vertigo series.

 

 

Toni Morrison: God Help the Child (2015)

I’m so annoyed with myself. I have three or four unread books by Toni Morrison on my piles but instead of reading those, I went and bought her latest, God Help the Child. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was a good book but it’s not. It’s so flawed, it could be a beginner’s novel. And the style? Well, when you pick a Toni Morrison novel, you expect it to be challenging. You don’t expect it to be bland mainstream, with descriptions like “the sky was baby-blue”. Honestly, what went wrong?

The book’s premise had so much promise. The blurb said it’s a book about the way parents damage their children and the repercussions this has later in their life, but somehow that’s not really what it is about. The book doesn’t really take this theme seriously. Maybe because it’s about so many other topics— race, skin color, trust, self-esteem, child abuse.

When the main character Bride is born, her mother rejects her immediately because of her black skin. Nobody in Bride’s family is this blue-black. In fact, they are so light, some of them did pass as white. Her mother, too, could, if she wanted, pass as white. Bride’s father is so shocked that he leaves her mother. He can’t imagine that two rather fair African-Americans could be the parents of such a black child. Of course, he suspects she was unfaithful.

Bride grows up as an outsider and only later, in her twenties, is she able to embrace her skin color and discover her beauty. She even learns how to underline it by wearing only white. At the age of twenty-two, she’s a successful executive at a cosmetic company, ready to launch her own beauty line. While she’s still fighting for her mother’s love, she’s also happy about her success and her beautiful lover, Booker, until the day she tells him something and he leaves her without an explanation.

The reader learns that Booker’s reaction has something to do with Bride’s idea of helping a woman who was convicted for child abuse.

I will stop here as the book basically is about why Bride does what she does and why this makes Booker flee. Both reasons are tied to the protagonists’ childhood.

For such a slim novel – under 180 pages – it has just too many themes. While some are really well done, especially all those linked to colorism, others didn’t get the depth they would have deserved. It isn’t fully explored what being rejected by her mother really meant for Bride. She does something cruel to gain her mother’s love and this affects her, but there doesn’t seem any real and deep damage. This struck me as odd.

What also struck me as odd was the number of child molesters we come across in this book. This too is such a serious problem, but it just didn’t get the careful treatment it would have deserved.

I’m really disappointed and wish I hadn’t bothered with this book. At the same time, I find colorism such an important topic, that I liked the book for that.

I’m glad this wasn’t my first Toni Morrison. It would have been my last. I’d rather read some bestseller than something that is written like a mainstream novel but saddled with heavy, carelessly treated themes. Don’t read this unless you’re a Toni Morrison fan and want to read everything she’s ever written. That said, I think she’s a terrific author and I’ll be reading more of her. Let’s just hope this was a one-off.

Have you read Toni Morrison? Which of her novels do you consider must-reads?

Literature and War Readalong May 2017: War Poems

For the last readalong before the summer break we are reading something we haven’t read before—poems. I know people are sometimes reclutanct to read poetry, so to encourage you to participate, I’m keeping the “rules” very free. I’ve chosen four different collections and those who want to join can either pick only one or all of them, read only a few, or even only one poem. I don’t think I will review all four of the books in their entirety, but will choose several poems from the four collections

The Poems of the Great War collection is probably the one book most readers are familiar with. Memorandum is a collection by Vanessa Gebbie whose short story collection Storm Warning we’ve read last year. Vanessa even joined our discussion which was a special treat fo those who participated. Poet Caroline Davies has been a long-time follower of the read along. I’ve always enjoyed her thoughtful comments and when she suggested, we read poems, I was immediately enthusiastic, especially since this finally gives me the opportunity to read her poetry collections.

Here are the first lines of each collection

In Flanders Fields (John McCrae)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our Place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
(….^)
Cenotaph
Under duress, stone gives
up its constituent parts
Veteran shells, sediment
filled, crystalline. (…)
The Litany 
She has to look down as the roll call begins.
She knows all of them, each name, every family.
Thomas Arnold, G Arthur Caffrey, Thomas Cudworth, T Owen Davies
and then the moment of her son’s name when she raises her head. (…)
Sirens
When the sirens sound we huddle
under the kitchen table.
Mam, Nain and me.
It’s oak, it will keep us safe
when the house falls down.
Nain says Liverpool’s taking it bad. (…)

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Poems of the Great War

Published to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Armistice, this collection is intended to be an introduction to the great wealth of First World War Poetry. The sequence of poems is random – making it ideal for dipping into – and drawn from a number of sources, mixing both well-known and less familiar poetry.

Voices from Stone and Bronze by Caroline Davies

A moving, honest and never sentimental collection that gives a voice to London’s many war memorials.
In her second poetry collection Caroline Davies turns her attention to the War Memorials of London. Voices from Stone and Bronze brings to life those who fought and died and those who survived, including some of the sculptors who had themselves come through trench warfare to a changed world.
Meticulously researched and deeply humane, these narrative poems apply a lyrical sensibility without sentimentalism; a deeply affective collection.

Convoy by Caroline Davies

Caroline Davies debut collection was inspired by the experiences of her grandfather, James Jim Honeybill, a merchant seaman in the Malta convoys of the Second World War.

The poems dramatically document the Navy s attempts to resupply the Mediterranean island, suffering severe losses at the hands of the German blockade. Beginning with the image of her mother as a child who has come to see her naval father as a stranger, the poems continue on to the voices of the men aboard the M.V. Ajax, fighting to get through against all odds, and making the greatest sacrifice of all. Skilfully incorporating a wealth of found material, recordings and interviews, this narrative poetry sequence captures a slice of history with visceral clarity.

Memorandum by Vanessa Gebbie

Memorandum is a haunting collection of poems that summons voices from the shadows of the First World War. Vanessa Gebbie transforms prosaic records of ordinary soldiers, and the physical landscape of battles, war graves and memorials, into poignant reflections on the small and greater losses to families and the world. Vanessa Gebbie is a writer of prose and poetry. Author of seven books, including a novel, short fictions and poetry, her work has been supported by an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship and residencies at both Gladstone’s Library and Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat. She teaches widely. http://www.vanessagebbie.com “From the idea of a shell reverting to its unmade, peaceful state to dead men buried in Brighton and France being mourned by their mother in Glasgow … heartrending images such as the Tower of London’s ceramic poppies seen as callow recruits, doubts about a corpse’s identity and how dregs at the bottom of a cup can be reminiscent of the deadly Flanders mud. This is a modern view, wise and compassionate, of Europe’s fatal wound.” Max Egremont, author of Siegfried Sassoon and Some Desperate Glory, The First World War the Poets Knew “Vanessa Gebbie is that rare breed of poet who understands the trials and tribulations of the ordinary Tommy.” Jeremy Banning, military historian and researcher, battlefield guide “The dead who linger around memorials and battlefields slowly step again into the light. History may remember them collectively, but Gebbie’s achievement is to present, with sensitivity and without sentimentality, lives rooted in the particular rhythms of hometowns, families, and memories.” John McCullough, author of Spacecraft and The Frost Fairs “These poems rise like ghosts from a scarred landscape.” Caroline Davies, author of Convoy

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Should you feel like joining but don’t want to read a whole collection of poems, don’t hesitate to read and post on only one or just a couple of the poems. 

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The discussion starts on Wednesday, 31 May 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

On Friedrich Ani’s Naked Man, Burning – Nackter Mann, der brennt (2016) German Crime at its Best

I discovered Friedrich Ani on the list for the German Book Prize. Several years, until 2016, he occupied the second place. Last year, finally, he won the prize with his novel Der namenlose Tag – The Nameless Day. If I’m not completely mistaken, that will be his first English translation. It’s due out in December.

I’m surprised he hasn’t been translated earlier as he’s published so much. If Nackter Mann, der brennt Naked Man, Burning – is anything to go by, this was a huge omission. He’s fabulous. This novel reminded me a lot of Pascal Garnier’s novels, only I’d say, Ani’s better; his writing is more original. The way he plays with words, uses quotes from songs or films, his interesting sentence structures and the way he combines words is unique.

Naked Man, Burning is a dark tale, a real noir. Coelestin fled his home village at the age of fourteen. Forty years later, under a fake name and looking nothing like he used to, he returns. The book opens with Ludwig getting ready for a funeral. This is how the novel begins (my translation)

Praised be Jesus Christ, I thought, crossed myself and opened the door to the storeroom, where my guest was hatching his fear. He stared at me and I closed the door again. This was going to be a day to my liking.

Soon the reader understands that Ludwig doesn’t only hold someone captive but that he might have had something to do with the death of the person being buried.

Why did Ludwig disappear? Why did he change his name and looks? And why is he threatening older men? The reader knows very quickly that they are responsible for a  lot of ugly things that happened a long time ago. Bit by bit we learn what that was and then we watch, with uneasy fascination, how Ludwig illustrates the old saying – revenge is a dish best served cold.

I hope this book will be translated. It’s chilling, original, dark, and has a pretty unexpected ending. And the strong voice and language are so amusing, eloquent, and fresh. I can assure you, there aren’t many crime writers like Ani.

I picked this book because the premise appealed to me and because it’s a standalone. Most of his other novels are part of  a series.

Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017

Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur  is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.

1945

La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945,  describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.

Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.

In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.

1944

Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.

After the war

Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.

There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.

French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.

 

Other Reviews

My Book Strings

 

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The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.